Sweet potato farmers in Livingston cultivate other opportunities to give back to their community
Two Portuguese families in Livingston grew to become some of the largest sweet potato growers in the nation. We meet up with the next generation of farmers building on what their families started.
This story is featured in the Livingston episode of The Other California, KVPR’s podcast all about small towns in the San Joaquin Valley.
The smell of exhaust dominates the air as race car drivers hit the track in waves. Dozens more are set up at their stations, pit crews on hand. They’re all practicing for tomorrow’s race day.
I’m at the Madera Speedway on a Friday afternoon to meet Carlos Vieira. He’s a sweet potato farmer from Livingston, but race car driving is his passion.
Outside his racing trailer, he sits relaxed on a folding chair. Soon, he’ll suit up and hop into his race car. This is his 15th year on the track.
“When I first started I thought, ‘okay well, stay on the gas pedal as much as you can around the corner and that's the fastest way around the track.’ But you learn quickly there is such a finesse when it comes to racing,” he says.
Carlos has always lived a fast life, sometimes to his detriment. He actually got into racing as a way to refocus after struggling for years with a drug addiction.
“I was just in sweet potatoes. That's all I did. I thought I was going to be in sweet potatoes all my life and that's all I was ever going to do. And I think that's kind of one of the reasons that maybe I struggled with staying away from drugs,” he says.
But being a sweet potato farmer also grounded him. Carlos is one of three kids born to Portuguese parents. His dad was originally from the Azores. Manuel Vieira moved to the U.S. to work for his uncle, Antonio Vieira Tomas who operated a small sweet potato farm called A.V. Thomas in Merced County.
In 1977, Carlos’ father bought the farm from his uncle and that’s what started the family business in sweet potatoes. Carlos helped his dad all through high school.
“We slowly started building the company to the point now where we're the largest grower, packer and seller of sweet potatoes in the country,” he says.
Carlos runs A.V. Thomas now. The company has given him a lot of opportunities including car racing, which he says saved his life and gave him purpose. “I'm still very passionate about what I do, but I needed to do more besides growing, packing and selling sweet potatoes. So racing was a great outlet for my energy.”
And it was through his racing that he started helping others. Shortly after his first race at the Madera Speedway, Carlos says he was approached to take part in a drive to raise money for Valley Children’s Hospital. So he started a non-profit, the Carlos Vieira Foundation.
Today, the foundation raises money for autism, mental health and after-school boxing programs, as well as a series of scholarships. It’s been a good complement to his day job running the sweet potato company.
“But the one thing I think that honestly keeps me most passionate about continuing down this path is the foundation and the foundation does such great work,” Carlos says.
Sweet Potato Joe
Like Carlos, Jim Alvernaz is also a sweet potato grower in Livingston and the son of an early sweet potato farmer. And while Carlos likes fast cars, Jim likes calling the sports, baseball in particular, and it’s all because of his dad, whose name is on the town’s baseball field.
I meet Jim at Livingston Memorial Park where some volunteers are trimming back the shrubs near Joe F. Alvernaz field. “I can’t believe the quality of this field, it’s like a putting green,” Jim says as he steps onto the field.
We walk the wide, open field and talk about Jim’s family. His grandfather first came from the Azores in the early 1900’s. Jim’s father Joe died in 2013, but during his life, he was widely known as “Sweet Potato Joe.”
Jim says his father was a World War II veteran and came back from the war to continue serving his community. He was civic-minded, Jim says, and took a special interest in baseball, organizing little league and announcing games.
“My mom used to say he spent so much time at the ballpark back in the 40s
and 50s into the 60s that she was gonna bury him at home under home
plate,” Jim says.
He’s not buried here but there is a metal cutout in right field that features a photo of Joe Alvernaz, smiling in his military uniform, one foot resting on a box of sweet potatoes.
“Since this has been here most days, if I come to town I go around the ballpark and say hi,” he says laughing. “I say ‘hey Pop.’”
Every year, Jim announces a special game held in his father’s honor, with proceeds benefiting youth baseball in Livingston. There’s even a baseball cap made for the game. “The sweet potato Joe hat you see right that I'm wearing,” he says pointing to the hat.
The bright red hat and green bill underneath is hard to miss. A big white name patch stands out on the front: Sweet Potato Joe - the hat, the field and the games a reminder of his father’s spirit and his love for baseball.